Writer’s book steals hearts at launch

The Kramer family from Claremont: Jess, Briony and Nicholas.

The Thursday Club wasn’t going to host a lunc in December until the book Heartbreaker: Christiaan Barnard and the First Heart Transplant by James-Brent Styan came along.

With the recent 50th anniversary of the first human heart transplant, the book launch was too good an opportunity to miss.

James Brent-Styan lives in Milnerton and is a media liaison for the Western Cape government. His interest in Christiaan Barnard led him to learning some unknown facts about this world-renowned heart surgeon and to doing extensive research and writing a book about his life.

He says it all began on Main Road, Observatory, where Denise Darval and her mum were crossing the road in front of Wrensch Bakery, which is no longer there.

It was a time when a caramel cake cost 80 cents. A driver ran a red light and with only 1km between the crash and Groote Schuur Hospital, this was one of many things that happened that day that enabled the momentous event to take place.

Denise was left brain dead while her mother was killed. It was Denise’s heart which was transplanted into the body of Louis Washkansky.

Mr Brent-Styan says he enjoyed writing the book. “It was like putting jigsaw puzzle pieces in place, talking to lots of people, some a little crazy,” he says.

“Barnard was a hard task master, had five degrees and two doctorates, earning R500 a month when he performed the operation on Louis Washkansky. This guy was a genius.

“This book shows a different side to him. From his Beaufort West childhood through his studies locally and abroad to his prominent marriages – and divorces,” says Mr Brent-Styan. He also reveals how Barnard managed to beat other doctors in the race of life and death to perform the world’s first heart transplant. And he examines the impact of the historic event on Barnard’s personal life and South African society at large, of how, in 1972 he ran for opposition politics and the role of black medical staff such as Hamilton Naki.

In 1983 he retired at the age of 61 having suffered rheumatoid arthritis since the age of 34. He died in 2001. This is Mr Brent-Styan’s second book.

The first was Blackout: the Eskom Crises, published in 2015. Heartbreaker is also available in Afrikaanse: Hartebreker.